- Three specially-recruited Plymouth Council ‘conversion officers' have transferred nearly four in five statemented children to education, health and care (EHC) plans since September 2014, twice the national rate
- The reforms are showing signs of narrowing the attainment gap between these children and their non-SEND peers
From September 2014, as part of reforms to services for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), statements of SEN have been replaced by education, health and care (EHC) plans, outlining how multi-agency staff will work with families to improve outcomes for each child or young person aged up to 25. Ministers promised this meant an end to families "battling against a complex and fragmented system", promising support that "fits in with their needs and not the other way round".
In December 2016, Plymouth City Council was praised by Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspectors for its multi-agency commitment to the reforms, the family involvement in EHC plans and the pace of their rollout; of Plymouth's 1,351 statemented children in September 2014, 1,073 (79 per cent) have now transferred to EHC plans, twice the national average. The authority is on track to transfer the rest by the April 2018 deadline.
What helped the authority hit the ground running was its April 2015 introduction of an integrated health, social and wellbeing service, involving the pooling of council and NHS budgets. "We were planning that at exactly the same time as the strategic changes to SEND," explains steering group chair Judith Harwood, assistant director, learning and communities. The principles underpinning health and social care integration - that people don't want to have to re-tell their story to different agencies, want the right support in the right place at the right time and don't want to be referred into a "cul-de-sac" - applied to disabled parents too.
"Those key messages became our core principles for the SEND reforms," says Harwood.
"What young people and families wanted out of EHCs was a clear plan to improve outcomes for them, where they understood who would be doing what to contribute to making each outcome happen," adds head of SEND, Jo Siney. Plymouth used some of its SEND implementation grant, worth £456,366 from 2015 to 2018, to buy external training for children's workforce leaders in "outcome-based planning", helping them train their teams in working collectively with others towards outcomes identified by young people and families.
More grant money was used to employ three "conversion officers", to co-ordinate the transfer of Plymouth's 1,351 statemented children onto EHC plans from September 2014, scheduled to coincide with their next educational transition.
When it is time to convert a statement, the conversion officer briefs the school's special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco), who meets with the parents, and the young person where appropriate, to understand the outcomes they want, complete any gaps in their statement and prepare them for the "drafting meeting". This is chaired by the conversion officer and attended by the family and relevant professionals. Siney describes the officer's role as "negotiator, facilitator, broker, planner and conflict resolver". He starts with a "skeleton" document, with information from the child's statement and last annual review, and amends it according to the family's desired outcomes, setting out how agencies will work towards them. Families have 15 days to comment on the draft, sometimes meeting several times with the conversion officer to negotiate changes.
"What's important for us is it's not a desktop or school-only exercise; we try to bring in multi-agency involvement with the family in conversions, as much as with new EHC plans," explains Siney. "Parents have said they felt involved in the construction of the plan, and able to challenge things, where they hadn't had agreement [with statements] in the past."
Children not on statements, whose family or key professional's request for an EHC assessment has been granted by the authority's Single Multi Agency Panel, are allocated an "assessment co-ordinator", a key professional who supports families to voice the outcomes they want and identify the professionals needed, convening a meeting of all parties to draft the plan. It's finalised within 20 weeks, after panel approval and a 15-day consultation.
Plymouth has had no tribunal challenges of EHC decisions, which Harwood says was a "real line of inquiry for Ofsted, because it's so unusual". She and Siney attribute this to the authority's principles of listening to families and taking time to ensure the right support, sometimes exceeding the 20-week time limit for creating EHC plans.
"When we've looked at the few cases that have exceeded the 20-weeks, we've seen it's been in agreement with families wanting more time to negotiate the plans," explains Siney. "We're not going to force families to sign something off they're going to dispute."
Among those benefitting is five-year-old Adam, who displayed challenging behaviour on moving from nursery to primary school, struggling to communicate his needs. The Senco worked with Adam's parents to understand their aspirations for him and Plymouth's Multi-Agency Support Team provided an educational psychologist and family worker to support him. Assessment by a clinical nurse and discussions with the family led to a jointly-produced request for an EHC assessment, and Adam's support team helped draft the plan. It has enabled his inclusion in the classroom, where he's progressing well.
Assessment data suggests the reforms are helping narrow the maths attainment gap between Plymouth's SEND pupils and non-SEND pupils. In 2011, 28 per cent of statemented Plymouth pupils achieved level two or above in Key Stage 1 assessments, 69 percentage points lower than non-SEND pupils nationally. In 2015, 33 per cent of Plymouth pupils on statements or EHC plans achieved level four or above in KS2 tests; 61 percentage points lower than non-SEND pupils nationally and an attainment gap eight percentage points lower than at Key Stage 1.
This article is part of CYP Now's special report on special educational needs and disabilities. Click here for more